Seattle -- A Brief History of Its Founding

  • By Walt Crowley
  • Posted 8/31/1998
  • Essay 303
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Seattle was founded by members of the Denny party, most of whom arrived at Alki Beach on November 13, 1851, and then, in April 1852, relocated to the eastern shore of Elliott Bay. With the filing of the first plats on May 23, 1853, the "Town of Seattle" became official.

The future city was born when the schooner Exact dropped anchor off Alki Beach in present-day West Seattle. It carried Arthur A. Denny (1822-1899) and a few of the pioneers (10 adults and 12 children) that he and his father had led from the Midwest over the Oregon Trail to Portland.

The Denny Party was greeted by David Denny (1832-1903), Arthur's younger brother, who had scouted the area with John Low (1820-1888) and Lee Terry. They had arrived at the mouth of the Duwamish River on September 25, 1851 aboard a sailboat skippered by Capt. Robert C. Fry and were met by Chief Seattle (d. 1866).

"Room for One Thousand"

Low and Terry chose Alki Beach for their claims on September 28, 1851. Low hired David Denny and Terry to build a cabin while he returned to Portland with a note from David Denny to Arthur Denny which read "We have examined the valley of the Duwamish river and find it a fine country. There is plenty of room for one thousand settlers. Come at once" (Bagley, 46).

David Denny neglected to mention that he had neighbors. Other settlers and travelers had preceded the Denny scouts, including Isaac Ebey (1818-1857) and John C. Holgate (1830-1868), who had explored the Duwamish River in the summer and fall of 1850. The first King County settlers were members of the Collins party: Luther Collins (1813-1860), Henry Van Asselt, and Jacob and Samuel Maple. They filed legal claims on September 14, 1851, but their settlement on the Duwamish River did not play a significant role in Seattle's development until much later.

Skunks, Fever, Rain

While waiting for the rest of the Denny Party, Lee Terry went off to borrow a froe (an ax for cutting shingles) from the Duwamish settlers. While Terry was gone, skunks ate Denny's food, and he cut himself with an ax and came down with a fever. He was therefore very happy to see the Exact but the feeling was not mutual. Women and children in the Denny Party reportedly wept when they saw the unfinished cabin standing roofless in the rain.

The approximate landing site is marked today by the Alki Pylon at the foot of 63rd Avenue SW and Alki Avenue SW. It lists the Denny Party, using the term "and wife" in lieu of naming the women. The members of the Denny party were:

  • Arthur A. Denny, his wife Mary Ann (Boren) Denny (1822-1912), their children Louisa C. Denny (b.1844), Lenora Denny (1847-1915), and Rolland H. Denny (b. 1851);
  • Arthur's brother David T. Denny (1832-1903);
  • Carson D. Boren (1824-1912), his wife Mary Boren (1831-1906), their daughter Gertrude Boren (1850-1912), and Carson's younger sister Louisa Boren (1827-1918);
  • William N. Bell (1817-1887), his wife Sarah Bell (1819-1856), and their daughters Laura Bell (1842-1887), Olive Bell (b. 1846), Virginia Bell (1847-1931), and Lavinia Bell (1851-1857);
  • John Low, his wife Lydia Low (1820-1901), and their children Alonzo Low (b. 1844), John N. V. Low (1847-1902), Mary Low (b. 1842), and Minerva Low (1849-1858);
  • Lee Terry;
  • Lee Terry's brother Charles C. Terry (1830-1867).

Early in 1852, Arthur Denny, Carson Boren, and William Bell explored Elliott Bay and decided that its eastern shore offered a better harbor than Alki Beach. They marked claims from present-day Pioneer Square to Belltown on February 15, 1852. Most of the Denny Party had relocated to the new settlement by mid-April 1852. Charles Terry and John Low remained at the original landing spot, which they dubbed "New York" after Terry's hometown. Charles Terry replaced the "New York" with the Chinook word "Alki" (AL-kee) to make it "by and by."

The new village was called "Dewamps" or "Duwamps" until late 1852, when a new resident and its first merchant, Dr. David S. "Doc" Maynard (1808-1873), convinced his neighbors to adopt the name of Chief Seattle. The earliest printed use of the name was in an advertisement for Maynard's store, "Seattle Exchange," which appeared in the October 30, 1852 edition of the Columbian. By then Henry Yesler (ca. 1810-1892) was already building Puget Sound's first steam-powered sawmill on Elliott Bay and laying the economic foundation for the city-to-be. With the filing of the first plats for the "Town of Seattle" on May 23, 1853, the new name became official.


Clarence B. Bagley, History of Seattle (Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1916) Vol. 1, 17-32; Edmond. S. Meany, History of the State of Washington (New York: MacMillan, 1909); Gordon Newell, Westward to Alki (Seattle: Superior Publishing Co., 1977); Roberta Frye Watt, Four Wagons West (Portland, Or.: Binfords & Mort, 1931); Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Seattle and King County's First Non-Indian Settlers" (by Greg Lange), (accessed December 17, 2018).
Note: This essay was revised in May 2001 and on December 21, 2018.

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